Shapwick Heath in the snow

The heavy fall of snow in Somerset last Thursday – over 6 inches deep (15cm) in the front garden of the Vicarage – was timed just perfectly for Jen and myself. As the roads were almost impassable, we took advantage of our free Friday to go for a seven-mile walk. Our route, starting along the back lane to Buscott, enabled us to walk through the Shapwick Heath nature reserve from the east end, taking in a couple of bird hides on the way, before returning to the village along the main road.

We were surprised to find that the canal (aka South Drain) was frozen over, while the much shallower Meare Heath scrape (on the right below) was only half covered.

The Tower Hide on Shapwick Heath.

Pied wagtail with spider

Unsurprisingly, the wildlife was struggling to cope. There was an endearing pied wagtail at the entrance which was alternately hopping around us, and being blown around by the wind. Shortly after we encountered it, it did succeed in finding a dead spider by a gatepost which it made short work of.

I’d expected to see a bevy of wildlife photographers on the reserve taking advantage of the unusual conditions, but in fact there were none. Not only were the narrow approach roads treacherous in themselves, but the yawning rhynes could have easily swallowed a few cars in their gaping maws. We trod on virgin snow on the way to two of the hides, at Noah’s Lake and the Decoy Lake.

I’d expected to see something surprising on the journey, and I found it at Noah’s Lake. The wigeon, of which there were hundreds, were lined up, shoulder to shoulder on the edge of the ice. Normally they would have been swimming in the lake – perhaps, paradoxically, this was the least cold part of the area?

The wigeon, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder on the edge of the ice at Noah’s Lake.

The wigeon were lined up carefully along the margin of the ice

Wigeon on a frozen Noah’s Lake – and only wigeon!

Saying that we were breaking virgin snow is perhaps a little inaccurate, as we noticed on the way down to the Decoy Hide. We were only the first humans… There were plenty of tracks on the path down, that were tantalising hints of the animal life lurking in the woods. Not being skilled in reading tracks, I can only guess at what might have caused them.

Tracks on the way to the Decoy Hide

The Decoy lake itself was suitably cold and wintry! The tor was just visible, a ghostly shape visible through the mist. Much of the lake was covered in ice, particularly at the margins where it was thickest, although the area nearest the hide was free of ice.

Glastonbury tor visible from an icy Decoy Lake

On our way back to Shapwick from the reserve, we passed a stream that seemed to epitomise the coldness of the day… Nevertheless, when we returned to the Vicarage, we were very glad to have made full use of the day.

Snow, ice and a frozen stream between Shapwick and the nature reserve.


Romance and trash talk in Grebe World

It was early morning by the lake, and there was a hail shower. It wasn’t the sunny start that was forecast, so I sat back and thought, “no chance of the birds doing anything in this weather”. Then I looked across the lake and saw a pair of grebes in the middle of an intense courtship ritual. Even in the hail! But there was a phase of it that I’d never noticed before and was really impressive.

It started out as a normal courtship ritual…

Then one of them (the male?) shot off, turned round, and showed his wings in a magnificent pose.

The female then approached. Although she looks deferential here, in reality she’s just beginning to dive underneath.

They then finish the display with more courtship celebrations.

It was the triumphalist pose that particularly impressed me. It’s been called the ‘cat-display’, which seems an odd choice of name – but I’d not been aware of it until it was so dramatically displayed in the hail.

Dawn had in fact been much clearer and I’d gone in anticipation of a fine morning.

Sunrise towards the Tor from the Decoy Lake.

The Little Grebes revealed themselves more often by their whinnying calls from deep within reedbeds, but one individual showed itself in the morning sun before dashing off, running across the lake surface (a good trick it you’re small enough and fast enough).

Little Grebe in the morning sun.

Cloudy skies really don’t bring out the vivid colouration – but the advantage is that muted colours are easier to photograph: white feathers are otherwise easily overexposed.

Great crested grebe portrait.

Towards the end of the month I decided to go in the afternoon, on the basis that the lighting would be better. But again I was thwarted by sunshine that was only intermittent, and birds that seemed quite elusive. Nevertheless, a pair of little grebes swam across, showing off the finery of their breeding colours.

Little grebes in breeding plumage

By now there were three pairs of Great Crested Grebes on the lake, but none of them were being co-operative as far as I was concerned! They looked like they’d done their work for the day – that is, until the end, when I had begun to pack up, having removed the camera mount. The pair nearest the hide (but mostly obscured by reeds), swam into the middle and began to display. I then saw another pair had arrived from the far side, and was also displaying, and yet another was performing strange antics in front. I didn’t know which to look at.

It was only when I looked at the photos that I began to understand what had happened. With three pairs of grebes on the central part of the lake at the same time, the displays may have been more about territory than romance. In the photos below, the foreground grebe was expressing displeasure – and probably asserting his territorial boundary.

One pair of grebes is about to start displaying, while another one shows his displeasure.

“OK, lovebirds, watch what I’m doing… this is the boundary of my territory… you wouldn’t want to come to any harm, would you?”

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the woods, there was plenty happening there as well. I’ve managed to secure a couple of decent Long-tailed tit photos. This may not seem much of a feat as they are common enough – but they are a difficult bird to photograph because they move very fast, and I’ve regularly failed before.

Long-tailed tit by the Decoy lake

I also came across a wintering chiffchaff, trying to find food in frosty ground, which was probably wondering why it hadn’t migrated south in the autumn.

Wintering chiffchaff, by a stream near the Decoy Lake.

The Decoy Lake at Shapwick Heath

Prehistoric trackways, woodland, and a bird hide overlooking a lake: these are some of the reasons why one of my favourite spots around here is the Decoy Lake at the west end of Shapwick Heath.

I initially came across it some years ago on my first trip here – a futile quest to see otters – but even then realised that this particular lake is a good spot for the charismatic great crested grebe. The various routes to it are attractive, either through deciduous woodland or alongside a large reedbed. The woodland also contains a re-constructed trackway that was built around 1500BC, but next to the lake itself is the site of an even older trackway, dated by analysis of the tree-rings to 3607BC. This is the Sweet Track, named after the peat worker, Ray Sweet, who discovered it in 1970.

This year I’ve decided to focus particularly on this patch, and particularly the grebes – partly because my days of chasing rarities are receding 🙂 and partly because it is (for me) a new focus for the birdwatching.

Plenty of ducks wintered on the Decoy Lake this year: pintail at top left, shoveler top middle, the other four are gadwall.

I hadn’t quite realised before that the decoy lake is a good site for wintering ducks. Early in January there were large numbers – surprisingly many shovelers (characterised by their massive bills), and a few of the elegant pintails. The next time I went, towards the end of the month, I was surprised to see very few ducks and wondered where the others had gone. An hour or so later, as we neared sunset, small flocks of shovelers and teal splashed down, and the overall numbers were closer to the previous visit.

It’s easy to overlook tufted ducks as they’re quite common, but this group shows their handsomeness!

These teals splashed down on the lake in the late afternoon.

Great crested grebe with a male gadwall

As for grebes, though, things seemed a bit forlorn. Last year around February I counted up to seven adult great-crested grebes, so when I didn’t see any at the start of my first visit in January, I was a bit concerned. Eventually one emerged from a reedbed in the middle of the lake. I was distinctly relieved! I later saw a second one with different plumage. A couple of weeks later, though, there really was only one – but this one (right, with gadwall) was still in winter plumage, unlike the one below, photographed on the previous visit ten days earlier, had plumage which was more advanced towards breeding. I wondered what had happened to the other one.

I began to hope that the one or two grebes wintering here would be joined by others migrating in from elsewhere, otherwise there’d be much less to photograph and blog! I’d have to wait to February to begin to find out.

Great crested grebe on the decoy lake

A grey winter’s day on the Decoy Lake, looking north from the hide, with a grebe at front left.

Opportunistic egrets

In the Somerset Levels, you don’t necessarily need to go the reserves to see interesting wildlife.

About ten days’ ago I was driving to Burtle church along the road from Westhay, and saw a large number of white birds in a field; as I got closer I realised they were not gulls but egrets – about 40 in all. Then I discovered that the closest ones were cattle egrets – a species which is nationally rare but, having bred at Ham Wall this summer, not uncommon around here.

I came back later that afternoon with binoculars and found only little egrets, so I was worried I’d mis-identified them. But the following day, both little and cattle egrets were present, about 20 of each.

However, it was what they did when they found that a digger was dredging peaty soil from the rhyne (ditch) that was most intriguing…

Herons and egrets amassing around near the digger for fresh peat

While the dredger was at work, several grey herons flew in. Very sensible, you might think – except that, although they breed colonially, they hunt as solitary birds, and really don’t seem to like each other’s company most of the time. But here there were six of them, all waiting for the rich pickings from the stream bed. Meanwhile, the little egrets – a more gregarious species – got to work on the peat dredged previously. In an adjacent field were the cattle egrets.

Cattle egret with frog

The egrets were usually in fields either side of Burtle Road between Westhay and the peat works. Both fields are saturated after the recent rains – the stubble field to the south especially so. While they were probably probing for invertebrates most of the time, one cattle egret caught a frog – which seemed to be an awkward beakful judging by the length of time it took to consume it, but there was only ever going to be one winner.

The next day, driving up to Westhay from Shapwick, I noticed the cattle egrets living up to their name. They were dodging the feet of some bullocks, in order to feed on the invertebrates in the churned-up mud.

Cattle egrets near Westhay on the road from Shapwick

If you’re gloing to dodge between the hooves, you need to know what he’s thinking…

I had less luck when I wanted to show Jen the egrets: just a single little egret. Instead, a large flock of winter thrushes – redwings and fieldfares – enjoyed the feast.

The glossy ibis

As well as the cattle egrets there was a glossy ibis around as well – probably the same one that has been at Ham Wall for most of the past two years. I’ve seen the ibis several times over the last couple of years but only once had a good sighting – but this week I had a far better view from closer range. 

The interesting thing about this particular bird is that it is present all year round. Most glossy ibises migrate to winter in Africa, but this one, along with a handful of others elsewhere in the UK, seems well adapted to winter conditions here.

It would be easy to think that the ibis and the egrets co-existed amicably, as they stride along together, probing the ground for prey  – but it became clear that their company was more one of sufferance than congeniality. When an egret got too close to the ibis, it was rounded on and hissed at. With that, order was restored.

An altercation between the ibis and an egret that got too close. While the ibis hissed, the egret stretched itself to full height.

The glossy ibis with one of the little egrets

Much as it’s exciting to see these species in the UK, they are hardly rare globally. Cattle egrets are regarded as the most widespread of all bird species, and the glossy ibis is also very widespread. Nevertheless – they are an exotic enhancement to the wildlife of this area!

The fields either side of the Burtle road from Westhay (the edge of which is in the distance). The stubble field to the south of the road is on the right in this photo. Even wth the rhynes (drainage ditches) the field is saturated…well, this is the Somerset Levels!

Being expectant…

This may not be the most colourful image that I’ve posted on the blog – but Jen and I think it’s much the most exciting…

The ultrasound scan of the baby last week

Yes – we’re expecting a baby! We went for the first ultrasound scan last week, and all seems well so far.

The due date is the beginning of July. We’re both thrilled but also aware that we’re about to learn an awful lot in a short space of time! I’m led to believe – based on what we’ve heard from a variety of people – that our sleep patterns might get affected… 😀

Christmas refreshment

Jen and I have been enjoying a week of refreshment with our families over the last week.

Jay from Mum’s kitchen window in Cheltenham

After the Christmas services, we packed the car and went off to Cheltenham to spend a few days with my mum. She was keen to cook the Christmas lunch for us, which she did on Boxing Day. We had a restful time enjoying Mum’s generous hospitality!

We had a nice surprise on the Wednesday morning (the 27th) when we found it had snowed overnight. As we were keen to enjoy this weather, we went for a walk up Leckhampton Hill on the Thursday.

View from the top of Leckhampton Hill to Cleeve Hill.

Jen at the trig point on Leckhampton Hill.

Just before Christmas we had the sad news that mum’s great friend (and my godmother) Chris Baines had passed away. We went up to Willaston in Cheshire for the funeral – for which the church there was packed out. Over many years she’d made a major contribution to the area both as the head of a local secondary school and later chairman of the magistrates, as well as being a stalwart of the church. I remember her as a most generous godmother, and have many fond memories of her.

George’s cake: or maybe it’s a construction site? Rebekah, George’s cousin, watches him blowing out the candles.

After this we spent a few days in Devon with Jen’s family, in a couple of rented cottages near Moretonhampstead – partly to celebrate the New Year but also to celebrate George’s 3rd birthday the previous day. We were joined by Rachael’s family who were over from New Zealand (her mum Lesley) and from Australia (sister Sara and neice Rebekah).

Having the holiday in Devon was particularly convenient because Jen’s wider family were able to join us for George’s party and most of the New Year’s Eve celebrations.

A break during George’s present opening: Katie, Charlotte, Jeffrey, Mary, Rachael with George, Claire, Austin, Margaret (Louie in the foreground)

Pass the Parcel: Tasha (with the parcel) shares a joke with Claire (in the pink).

Most people were able to stay for the New Year’s Eve meal. As it happened it was Jen’s and my turn to cook, so after a starter with Sara’s pumpkin & apple soup, we served a beef stew followed by Jen’s apple crumble.

New Year’s Eve meal. Clockwise from left: Claire (Jen’s cousin, in the pink), Jen, Andrew (Jen’s brother), David and Christine (Jen’s uncle and aunt), Margaret (Jen’s mum), Tasha (Claire’s daughter), Lesley, Sara, Rebekah (Rachael’s mum, sister and niece) and Rachael (Andrew’s wife).

George (Jen’s and my 3 year-old nephew) quietly getting on with his own activity.

Although George was often in the thick of things, he also has an ability to get on with his own playing while others are being distracted elsewhere. In fact, he was so concentrated that he was oblivious to my photographing him.

It was one of those holidays where even the bad things worked out well. We meant to go to the Lost Gardens of Heligan on New Year’s day, but Andrew’s car developed a problem, so we abandoned the trip half way. Instead we decamped to the Liskeard tavern and had a leisurely lunch there, while waiting for the breakdown service. It was actually a most relaxed and enjoyable lunch: we couldn’t have planned it much better if we’d tried.

On our way back we stopped off at Burrow Mump, to admire the heartland of King Alfred’s Wessex – Athelney lies a short distance away. The nearby fields of the Somerset Levels were flooded, which gave a good feel for the area – and what it might have looked like in Alfred’s time, before the drainage ditches had been put in. Then we had a final lunch in the King Alfred Inn at Burrowbridge.

Looking over the flooded Levels from the top of Burrow Mump.


A couple of winter birding trips

Black redstart (female) at Brean Down cove

A few days ago, I took a quick trip to Brean Down cove, to look for a female black redstart that is wintering there. For a while I thought that I was going to miss out, but then she suddenly appeared, very close by. In the normal course I’d have been very satisfied with the photos I took at that point.

I decided to explore some of the rest of the cove and happened to notice a grey heron looking alert on a rock islet on the edge of the shore, so I spent a few minutes trying to capture the scene.

Heron at Brean Down Cove

On my way back I looked for the redstart again in a rather vague and half-hearted way – but then she suddenly appeared, on the end of a nearby branch that had been washed up, even closer than before. I’ve ended up concluding that she was checking me out! I was particularly delighted because this is definitely one of the best photos I’ve taken of a small bird.

Female black redstart at Brean Down cove

On my day off, Jen and I went up to Slimbridge. We knew it would be cold, but I’d forgotten what it was like to have an icy blast blowing in off the Severn estuary!

Many of the Bewick’s swans have arrived for the winter: they are much smaller than our native mute swans, with yellow-and-black bills rather than orange-and-black. They’ve had an astonishing journey to get here, as they breed on the arctic tundra of northern Siberia. Sadly they are declining in numbers all across Europe: 29,000 in 1995, dropping to 18,000 in 2010; there are far fewer at Slimbridge now than there were ten years ago. It’s not hard to work out one of the biggest causes of the decline: of those that are in the UK, 40% carry gunshot. (Their story on the WWT site here.)

Bewicks swans at Slimbridge

We saw several Bewick’s swans on the Rushy pen, where there was also a scarce wader – a Little Stint, which is indeed very diminutive.

Little stint at Slimbridge